On the steps leading up to his office, raindrops danced like the fingertips of a pianist on a deep red umbrella with cat ears.
His eyes narrowed in fondness. He would recognise that umbrella anywhere.
Sure enough, when he crouched down for a better view under the waterproof fabric, he found his daughter, drowsily wrapped around another deep blue umbrella.
“If you’re tired you should have stayed home,” he said.
She startled at his voice. The plump cat ears bobbled as she moved.
“Dad!” She untangled her skinny limbs to offer him the second umbrella, a blue twin to her. “For you.”
“What a coincidence. I left my umbrella at home today,” he lied.
With some careful juggling, he gripped his briefcase and umbrella handle in one hand, leaving the other free for his daughter.
Hand in hand, they stepped into the rain, dry under their mobile canopy while matching cat ears danced above them.
Genre: slice of life, family
It was a beautiful prison.
Soft grass carpeted the ground, watered by a cool river that sparkled under the clear blue sky.
But it was still a prison.
The endless horizon was only an illusion. If any of them strayed too close to the invisible boundary, the air twisted into an insidious maze that invariably spit them back where they started.
In the beginning, they were determined to break out. But as the skinny stream grew into a wide river, the fierce fire in their hearts wore down to dying embers and then cold ash, leaving him as the last spark.
It didn’t matter if everyone else was happy with their pretty prison.What he wanted was out there. Even if he was the only one left, even though his shoes frayed and his feet swelled from all the walking, he kept looking.
The day he finally found the exit, he was alone. He stood there for a long time, knowing that he had found what he was looking for, but not remembering why.
Should he return to the familiar comfort behind him, or should he press on towards a goal he had already forgotten?
He thought about the idyllic space behind him, the crisp river that wound around the vibrant trees that shaded them from the warm sun. If even that hadn’t stopped him from his goal, then his goal must have been important.
He turned his back to the space he knew and stepped into the unknown.
A girl bounced lightly from one bench to the next. Only her shadow touched the yellowed grass beneath her.
A boy looked down from his window. “What are you doing?”
The girl looked up. “I’m a cotton ball!”
“You’re a kid,” the boy shot back.
“Only when I touch the ground.”
The girl continued her weightless bounce, her long hair flowing around her like wings.
Then an adult called the girl’s name. With a final bounce, the girl’s feet touched the ground, and the carefree cotton ball turned into a prim lady. With precise steps, she closed the distance between herself and the adult and left his field of vision.
The boy’s lips twisted.
He preferred the cotton ball.
Inspired by the prompt nefelibata.
Genre: slice of life
If she was an animal, she would be a house cat. Content to laze her whole life, draped bonelessly over things while watching the world pass.
Her brother was cut from an altogether different cloth. He was more like a dog, always on his feet, ready to do something. He faced life with a determination not to waste a single moment, which meant that when he actually needed to stop and rest, he didn’t know how.
Fortunately for him, she, expert on doing nothing, was willing to help him out.
They lay side by side on his bed, her easily stretched out on her back like a cat basking in the sun, her brother doing a very good impersonation of a stick insect. The only time he broke the straight line his tense body made was to cough or grab a tissue, and the occasional attempt to escape.
The blanket shifted. She reached out to press her brother back down without even opening her eyes.
“What do you want? I’ll get it for you,” she said.
“Just want to stretch my legs,” her brother said in a hoarse whisper.
“Nope. Walking is still work.”
“You just went.”
“I want to go again.”
She opened one eye. “If you need to go every ten minutes, you need to see a doctor. So? Do I need to make the call?”
Her brother’s gaze slipped away from hers. “… No. I’ll stay.”
“That’s what I thought.” She shifted onto her side so that she had a better view of her brother’s face, especially the deep lines etched onto his brow. She couldn’t help but press a finger to the furrowed skin and try to smooth it out. Her brother gently nudged her hand away.
“Don’t come too close. You don’t want to get sick.”
“I do, actually. Then I can laze in bed all day.” She grinned.
Her brother’s lips twitched. “Let’s trade.”
She released an exaggerated sigh. “Sadly, fatigue isn’t contagious.”
Her brother replied with a smile as tense as the rest of him. She shook her head in exasperation.
“How are we related?”
“We both like pineapple in savoury dishes,” her brother said immediately.
“And we like honey in our coffee.”
She smacked her lips. “Yum.”
Her brother continued, listing all kinds of delicious food combinations that made her want to make a trip to…
She frowned and pushed herself up on her elbows to give herself the extra height to loom over her brother, which didn’t really work because the bed sunk beneath her but that wasn’t important.
“I know what you’re doing. I’m not going anywhere. Not even for food. My job today is to teach you to be lazy, and I’m going to make sure you learn it. Go to sleep!”
She dropped back onto her side and ran her fingers through her brother’s hair, the way her parents used to do when she was younger. Just enough pressure to be felt, unhurried and regular, drawing rhythmic patterns into his scalp as if she could pull the tension in his body out with her fingertips.
In the end, they couldn’t remember who fell asleep first, but the important thing was that her brother finally gave his body the rest it deserved.
She rewarded herself with another nap.
Genre: slice of life, family
That her fever in the real world managed to seep into her dreamscape was just another sign of her continued deterioration. One day, she wouldn’t even be able to hide from the pain in her dreams.
Her lips pressed together at the beautiful but unwanted reminder. She shook the leafy tendrils off her limbs and stepped into the sky.
Her family was working on the antidote for the poison burning through her body. All she needed to do was endure.
She left familiar wings unfold from her back. Flame-blue, just like the flowers. She frowned. With just a thought, her wings shifted into amethyst-purple. Abandoning every reminder of the real world, she dove into the dream world.
This trip, she would like to find someone dreaming about a cold winter’s day.
Genre: fantasy, speculative fiction
I was born with one brown eye and one black one. The brown eye sees things as they are, and although the black one does not always see the things in front of me, it can see much more.
It sees the past.
My black eye comes in handy when I help out at the Missing Persons Unit. We usually ask for a photo of the missing person so I know who I’m looking for. Something the missing person touched recently can be helpful but isn’t necessary, which means that people almost always try to give us something, ranging from common items like shirts to bizarre artefacts like mouse traps.
This, a broken brass doorknob, falls squarely in the latter category. Even weirder, it’s the only clue I get. No photos, not even a profile pic on social media. Well, I get some verbal description, so that’s something to work with.
I’m definitely curious about the doorknob, but finding the missing person comes first.
I look at my brass clue.
The doorknob broke off the side door of a quaint family restaurant in the white-knuckled grip of the poor victim getting mercilessly smashed by a group of men. He crashed to the ground. The doorknob rolled out of his grasp as he scrambled and dragged himself away from the beating.
Dark wavy hair, darker eyes, two rings of even darker tattoos around his left wrist. The man matches the description to a T.
I look at him.
The man covered in the corner of a bedroom as an older woman lashed at him with a belt.
He curled around his backpack in a troubled sleep underneath a bridge.
Wide eyes watched from two identical faces, both young twins hiding behind their parents as the adults tentatively offered the man a plate of hearty lasagne from their restaurant.
The same family of four, again and again, always kind, always cautious, offering meals when he turned up.
He turned around the corner to see a group of men trying to break into the family restaurant and threw himself at them without hesitation.
Trapped in a dead end, the group of men kicked him until he fell limp.
The man’s dark rings stood out against the white hospital sheets, completely still except for the slow rise and fall of his chest. The phone of the patient beside him displayed the time, just half an hour ago.
From there, it only takes another quick look to find the hospital the missing man is in. It takes a little longer to backtrack to the men who attacked him. It’s tempting to track the men all the way to their homes, it wouldn’t even take that long, but just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should.
So all I do is create a quick note of the numbers and identifying features of the men. Just a little something to give the investigation team a head start.
Then I put the case aside and reach for the next one.
He looks up, eyes wide as he watches an iridescent butterfly alight on an equally vibrant flower. He makes no other movement. The sun shines down on the insect and the plant, marking them as ‘things out of his reach’.
He is content to watch from afar, but the butterfly has other plans. On delicate wings, it glides through the gaps in between the bars that lines the boundary of his small world, slipping out of the warm sun into his chilly shadow.
A younger him would have instinctively snatched the small being out of the air, likely shredding those flimsy wings in the process. Current him has centuries of imprisonment to learn to remain still.
So the butterfly flutters, uninterrupted as it explores his prison in lazy circles. It’s the most interesting thing he has seen for a long time, and for a few precious moments, he remembers that he lives, not just exists.
Then the butterfly flutters out, taking the colour and life out with it. He’s left with himself, in a quiet cage with only the cold as his companion.
Back in the sun, the butterfly skims the air down to the lake at the foot of the mountain. It presents its whole, undamaged wings to its master, a contrast to its predecessors, who had returned from their mission with torn wings, if they returned at all.
The master smiles in satisfaction.
“Looks like I’ll be able to free him after all.”
Takes place in the Defenders of the Wall verse.
A three-tier cake sat on a table in the middle of the wasteland.
Theo rubbed his eyes.
Nothing changed. It wasn’t his imagination.
“What’s that?” Thomas asked the question on their minds.
“Bait,” Vice Captain said.
Vice Captain raised an eyebrow at Thomas. “We’re outside the wall. What else can this bait be for?”
Theo cast his gaze around the monotonous landscape, its almost completely flat surface broken only by one mound of dirt that could almost be called a hill, if he was feeling generous. The cake had been left behind by another squad a week ago, but despite the monster tracks left in the dirt, there wasn’t a single bite in the creamy icing.
Undeterred, Vice Captain directed them to drag the cake up the hill and fan its sickly sweetness into the air. Having long learnt the lesson that no matter how strange, it was easier to indulge their vice captain’s whims than to argue with him, they obeyed.
Despite their best efforts, half a day passed and not a single monster took the bait. Which was strange, because they could see the monsters in the distance, yet instead of charging at them like they normally would, the monsters stayed away.
Vice Captain smiled in satisfaction.
“Next step, get rid of the cream on the cake,” Vice Captain said as he pulled out two disposable bags and a box of gloves.
Their confusion didn’t slow them down. They carried the cake back to flat ground for better access and got to work.
That was when they discovered that the cake was a lie.
Underneath all the cream was a box shaped like a cake. And inside the box, was…
Theo lurched back, an arm pressed over his face as he fought the urge to retch.
Raw meat sat in old blood, the heavy smell of decay coated his nose and slithered down the back of his throat, now that the cream no longer blocked it from their senses.
In the distance, the monsters stirred.
“Let’s go,” Vice Captain said.
Between the monsters and the smell, they were more than ready to go. Captain only lingered long enough to close the box before they sprinted away.
It was only after they returned safely behind the city wall that they finally learnt what their mission was. For the field test of the prototype for a monster deterrent, they were the second of three squads tasked with heading out to the wasteland to check on its performance. The squad before them left the cream-covered bait in place, they collected the cream, and a third squad would go a week later to collect what was left.
“You should thank me. I got you the best option,” Vice Captain said.
They immediately looked at their captain.
“The missions were decided with a lucky draw,” Captain said.
As one, their brows furrowed in suspicion. Vice Captain and lucky were two words that didn’t belong in the same sentence unless it also had the word ‘not’.
“… And who drew for us?”
“I did,” Captain said.
Wide smiles replaced their frowns.
“Thank you, Captain!”
Vice Captain grumbled. This too, was nothing unusual, and they ignored him with practised ease. The only concession was made by Eileen, who reached over to give him a comforting pat on the shoulder.
And so the mission ended, but it took much longer before Theo could eat cake without remembering the rancid smell from that day.
Alternate title: The Cake (Is A Lie)
The house had been left alone for so long that the spiders had completely taken over, staking their claim with massive sheets of gossamer.
Her brother turned to her.
“It’s not too late to change your mind,” he said.
She shook her head. “I’m not selling our house.”
Her brother frowned and took a step in, only to back out straightaway with his hand over his nose.
“You might want to air out the place first,” he said.
Even from the porch, she could smell the musty, stale air, but it was still bearable. She walked in, and backed out as quickly as her brother did. The air inside was even worse than she imagined. It wasn’t just the smell. It was the oppressive, moist weight that slithered over them like oil.
They both shuddered on the porch of the old house.
“Do you think anyone would break in if I leave all the doors and windows open?” she mused aloud.
“They can try. In fact, them breaking in will only help clear the cobwebs away. There’s nothing inside anyway, right?”
She looked at her brother, but he didn’t appear to have a clue of the significance of the house. Their house. The one they had lived in centuries ago before they were forced to flee.
The eyes on her brother’s face was bright, his smile easy. She returned it with her own brittle imitation.
It was better this way. He didn’t need to remember. She would do the remembering for both of them.
She faced the house and clasped her hands together.
“Well, the house isn’t going to air itself out. Let’s do it.”
Captain waved her white handkerchief like a flag.
“I surrender! I surrender!”
Our opponents laughed and stepped out from the cover of the foliage around them into the open.
“Again? That was quick.”
Just as planned.
While our opponents were lulled into a false sense of security, we sprung from our hiding spots and fired our water guns. In an instant, we soaked every single piece of paper on our opponent’s backs, removing them from the game.
Captain twirled her handkerchief like a limp baton.
“I surrendered.” She smirked. “The rest of us didn’t.”
A whistle’s blow marked the end of the the round. Before we began the next match, we gathered at our base for a strategic meeting.
“Next round, I’ll surrender again,” Captain said.
“Again? That’ll be the fourth game in a row,” I said.
“Don’t worry. I don’t need them to believe me. I just need their attention. And I’ll surrender every single game today. Our opponent kindly gave me this white handkerchief.” Her smile was as sharp as a blade. “I’ll make sure to use it at every opportunity.”
Those poor fools. They picked the wrong person to bully. Captain wasn’t going to stop until our opponents ran away from even the sight of a white handkerchief.
Another whistle’s blow began the next round.
Captain wrapped the white handkerchief around her hand for easy access.